These are personal stories, from childhood to adulthood, of loss, poverty, resilience and hope; stories that have been written as a result of collaboration between Catherine Dunne and Focus Ireland.
‘There are times,’ Katie says, ‘when I sit there on the rocks, just looking out at the sea. The movement of the water makes me wonder what it would be like to float away beyond the horizon. Leave it all behind.’ Then she straightens. ‘But I wouldn’t, of course. I have my daughter to think about.’
‘It’s the word I hate,’ Katie says. ‘That ‘less’ at the end of it. It means less of everything. Less deserving of respect. Less valuable. Less trustworthy. It’s not just about no longer having a roof over your head.’
Once, Katie was married, happily, she would have said, for twelve years: although her husband’s reckless attitude towards money was often a cause for concern. She had her own job, too, and every reason to feel that life would continue in its predictable, day-to-day ordinariness. There was plenty to fill it, after all: work, home, and a close relationship with her only child, Eleanor.
‘My husband’s mobile rang,’ she says. ‘No name came up, just an initial. I was immediately suspicious and I challenged him.’ The memory is still a painful one. ‘He lied at first. Then he confessed. He was having an affair.’
There were other betrayals, too, unimaginable ones at the time. ‘He hadn’t paid the mortgage for three years. Gas, electricity, phone bills – all months in arrears. And,’ she stops for a moment, ‘he’d also recently maxed out my Visa card, without my knowledge, withdrawing over two thousand in cash.’ She was left with nothing and even still, cannot bear to calculate the enormity of the debt. Her siblings helped with food, with Christmas, with transport. She can still remember the sense of shame that almost crippled her.
Filled with grief, bewilderment and loss. Suddenly, there was no future, an untrustworthy past, years of legal wrangling and the nightmarish prospect of court proceedings.
Katie still isn’t sure how the court finally made its decisions. All she knows is she experiences a deep sense of injustice at how the legal system treated her and her daughter. The judge ruled that the family home be sold. Once the mortgage arrears had been discharged, the legal bills paid and the dust had settled, Katie did not even have the funds for a deposit on a place of her own.
‘The worst was the way the judge believed all the lies my ex-husband told – his affidavit was a tissue of untruths,’ she says. ‘I was stunned when I saw it, but the judge ruled that John, my ex, should pay ten euro a week towards our daughter’s upkeep. Ten euro?’ She takes a sip of her coffee. ‘To date, he’s never even paid that. Not a penny. He just abandoned Eleanor, like an old jacket. I had to ask her school to pay for her books.’
Katie eventually picked up the pieces and found rented accommodation for herself and her daughter. ‘I had a perfect payment record in that house for almost ten years,’ she says. ‘I never missed a month. Initially, I was paying eleven hundred, which was then put up to thirteen hundred. I minded that house and garden like they were my own. I took pride in my surroundings – I always did. It was important to feel that it was our home.’
The landlord ran into financial difficulties. The house in which Katie and Eleanor were living was repossessed. ‘The receivers were horrible,’ she says. ‘They intimidated me. Kept putting pressure on me to leave. They had absolutely no humanity: they were vultures indeed. But I’d nowhere to go. My parents are dead. My siblings have families of their own. They’ve been brilliant – but they couldn’t house us, they didn’t have the room.’
She was, she says, ‘treated like a nobody’. Council staff resisted what she was telling them, reluctant to accept that she was homeless. Could she not stay with somebody? they kept asking. With family? With friends? With a neighbour, perhaps? Katie says she felt acutely embarrassed. ‘I’ve lived in this country all my life,’ she says. ‘I’ve paid my taxes, been a good citizen. And when I’m forced to look for help due to circumstances beyond my control, I’m made to feel worthless. There’s that word again, ending in ‘less’. It hurts.’
Focus Ireland’s phone number was given to her by the council. The woman who answered her call was the first friendly, compassionate voice Katie had heard. Focus Ireland’s help, she says, was a lifeline.
She still has to prove to the council, on a regular basis, that she is actively continuing to search for accommodation. It’s normal, she says, that out of a dozen or so of the online requests that she makes to view a premises every week, perhaps two landlords might reply. The time spent in chasing viewings, the stigma around homelessness and the frustrations involved are becoming increasingly stressful.
And the latest indignity is that Katie must now provide confirmation – a signed declaration by the property agent – that she has, in fact, turned up for the pre-arranged viewings. The council insists on visible proof.
Katie could find no landlord who would accept a HAP (Housing Assistance Payment) tenant. They don’t tell you that, she says – but she was always able to see through the excuses. She and Eleanor were never regarded as a ‘family’, she says – she’s regarded as a ‘lone parent’.
Property agents will often tell her that the accommodation she’s recently viewed has been allocated to ‘a family’ instead of to her.
Recent ill-health has made it impossible for Katie to continue working. Besides, the firm that employed her went bust. When she needed urgent accommodation, Focus sent her to Horizon House, a hostel on Dublin’s Gardiner Street. ‘Eleanor and I stayed there for eleven nights,’ she says. ‘It was devastating having to go there. I felt like such a bad parent. It’s my job to provide my child with a home.’
The accommodation was spotless, and the staff were wonderful, she says. ‘A kind word goes a long way.’ They encouraged her to make a cup of tea when she felt like it. They kept a kindly eye on her. ‘But I had to keep asking myself: how did I end up here? How did my life bring me here?’
She met others there, she said, who warned her against some of the other hostel accommodation on offer. ‘Their children had been badly bitten by fleas,’ she says. ‘There are places that are beyond filthy. I know one family who slept in the car, because at least it was clean.’
After the eleven nights, Katie and Eleanor were offered ‘self-accommodation’ in an hotel. Another ordeal, she says. One which Focus Ireland helped her overcome. They secured her accommodation, provided Eleanor with a Leap card to get to university, helped both of them to survive the latest trauma. ‘I’d have been lost without them.’
‘We wash our clothes in the machine in Tesco,’ she says. ‘We don’t have an iron, but we hang our stuff up and hope the creases fall out in time.’ She pauses for a moment, then smiles. ‘When I think about it,’ she says, ‘I used to be one of those people who ironed tea-towels.’
Her father still refuses to help, and the St Vincent de Paul has just paid for her text books. Katie is determined that her daughter will have as normal a life as possible. That she will pursue her career, become financially independent. She is also keen to make her days as busy and productive as possible while she waits for admission to hospital.‘I walk Sandymount beach. I read. I go the library and search online for accommodation. I keep the hotel room tidy and neat. It’s our home. If I let that sense of order disappear, then I’ve lost everything.’ Sometimes, dinner is crackers and cheese, served out on the dressing-table. Occasionally, they’ll have fish and chips.
But worse than all the practical challenges, Katie says, are the psychological ones. ‘It’s not healthy, an adult woman and a teenager living cheek-by-jowl in such a cramped space. I’m terrified I’ll be a burden on my daughter. That she’ll feel responsible for my welfare. Sometimes, the guilt is intolerable.’ In addition, she says Eleanor feels constantly on her guard. She can’t let any of her fellow students at UCD know that she is homeless: she pretends she still lives at her old address. Otherwise, the shame is too great.
‘I long for the abyss, from time to time,’ Katie says. ‘But medication is helping me cope. I’m on anti-depressants and anti-anxiety medication. I don’t think I could manage otherwise. It helps me put one foot in front of the other.’ She has just learned that her ‘self-accommodation’ in the hotel has been confirmed for another two weeks. In the meantime, she’ll keep looking. At least, she says, it means she doesn’t have to make that awful phone call at three o’clock every day, to find out whether she has a place for herself and her daughter to sleep each night.
Her vision of the future is ‘bleak, dismal’. Even applying for a new job will be problematic, she says, since she has no address. But first, she has to have surgery. Then, she has to recover. And then, day by day, she’ll have to survive as best she can.
‘People need to know what’s happening,’ she says. ‘Everyone needs to know that homelessness can happen to anyone.’
Katie feels strongly that the legal system should support children in the event of a divorce or separation: that there should be an ‘attachment to earnings’. ‘Eleanor shouldn’t have to suffer like this. But I have to try to make the best of things,’ she says. ‘If not for myself, then for my daughter.’